Adventures in Capitalism: How Trump Might Become a Workplace Disrupter

2017-02-22 14:26:17

 

Adventures in Capitalism: How Trump Might Become a Workplace Disrupter

Let’s say Donald J. Trump wants to make good on his promise to improve the lives of American workers.

Let’s imagine this White House, which came to power free from the political debts typically owed to unions or Wall Street, is genuinely focused on helping the nation’s miners, waitresses and Uber drivers.

What, then, should President Trump do?

The question might seem fanciful given the continuing chaos in Washington. But with Mr. Trump’s new choice for labor secretary, R. Alexander Acosta, heading toward a likely confirmation, at some point the president’s cabinet will actually start governing. And then, it will face an unusual opportunity: the freedom to create policies potentially beholden only to the American workers who put Mr. Trump into office.

This is a potentially transformative moment, not just within politics, but also inside millions of companies grappling with a changing economy and expanding worker demands. So over the past few weeks, I asked more than two dozen labor thinkers — from both the right and left; former officials and government skeptics; union leaders and strident capitalists — what kinds of federal innovations could remake American working life. I particularly asked for bipartisan ideas.

In general, and surprisingly, there is broad enthusiasm about the future of American work (even as there are sharp disagreements about whether this president’s policies will help or hurt workers).

“There are lots of new opportunities we wouldn’t have even dreamed about a few decades ago,” said Andy Stern, former president of the S.E.I.U., one of the largest labor unions. “There are great ideas out there, and people who want to experiment. But so much depends on what the government is willing to encourage.”

In particular, say both corporate chieftains and organized labor advocates, there is an opportunity for agencies like the Labor Department to become innovation catalysts, using technology to rethink how workers are trained and find jobs. The government could revolutionize employee benefits by making them more portable. And federal departments could become knowledge centers, spreading good ideas from state to state.

Many of these ideas draw on the creativity that has remade places like Silicon Valley. Take, for instance, how the internet has changed the way white-collar workers find jobs.

“You don’t find a lot of blue-collar workers on LinkedIn,” said Seth Harris, deputy labor secretary under President Barack Obama. “But the unemployment system reaches tens of millions of blue-collar workers each year. If government got more sophisticated about using technology to train workers with the skills companies need, and to encourage online job matching, that could transform things.”

Improving job training isn’t a far-fetched concept. Nearly every major university and college now offers online curriculums that evolve, semester to semester, in response to new technologies or what employers say they are looking for. But those innovations have not much influenced how the Labor Department spends billions each year on training for unemployed workers.

“There’s strong bipartisan support for work force development,” Mr. Harris said. “But right now, the private sector changes so quickly that by the time we get a training program in place to help out-of-work truck drivers learn computer programming, what we’re teaching is out of date. We can change that.”

What’s more, the Labor Department is perfectly poised to use technology to reduce what is known as “frictional unemployment” — in which jobs go unfilled because workers and companies have trouble finding each other.

Most online career marketplaces, like LinkedIn, cater to college-educated professionals. But, as Mr. Harris pointed out, LinkedIn is not primarily designed to help waiters or home health aides find work. And because such workers often have less money to pay for online memberships, those kinds of networks are less likely to emerge on their own.

However, Mr. Trump’s new labor secretary could create those marketplaces, as well as encourage companies to train people on the job. “We need more apprenticeship programs,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine.

Right now, such programs are hobbled by regulations that make it hard for companies to take on midcareer interns. But “there’s support from both parties for helping workers learn,” Ms. Collins said. “That’s not a partisan issue.”

This White House could also expand the concept of employment to benefit the millions of Americans who are freelancers, independent contractors or otherwise part of the “gig economy.”

“If you make it easier to hire more people, that’s both pro-business and pro-worker,” said Oren Cass, the domestic policy director of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. But in recent decades, as courts and regulators tussled over what, exactly, constitutes an employee, “we’ve made it harder to hire, even as it’s gotten easier to become Uber, a company that succeeds with hardly any formal employees,” Mr. Cass said.

Companies like Uber are terrified to offer benefits like health care. At Uber, for example, that increases the chances that a court will declare a driver an employee, which requires Uber to pay insurance and taxes, and makes the company liable if a driver harasses a passenger or causes an accident.

“But what if there was a category of employment that was somewhere between a full-time employee and an independent contractor?” Mr. Cass asked. “What if Uber could say to a driver, ‘We’re willing to contribute to your health care costs, but we don’t want to be on the hook for everything.’”

Creating a new category of employment could be risky for workers. Companies could opt to do away with formal employees altogether, and make it harder for workers to organize to fight for their rights. But such innovations could also be paired with flexible protections for workers, like “portable benefits.” Government policies could let employees transfer their health care plans or 401(k) accounts as easily as they switch cellphone carriers. That might push companies to compete for workers with the same ferocity that Verizon battles AT&T.

Ideas like these have been around for a while, but have been stymied by old political divisions. Mr. Trump, however, is a disruptive force.

“There’s an opportunity right now for the Labor Department to redefine its role, to help people stop thinking about the relationship between companies and workers as always win-lose,” said Eric Liu, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and author of the forthcoming “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen.”

“If Trump is smart, he’ll start stealing ideas from the right and left,” Mr. Liu added.

He could also steal from successful companies by publicizing good ideas. Companies like Costco and Allstate, which have prospered by giving employees higher wages and better benefits, deserve more attention. They haven’t been feted by this administration yet, but they should be. The White House should also propagandize the workplace nudges and experiments that help both workers and a company’s bottom line.

It is, of course, unclear if these are the kinds of ideas Mr. Trump or his cabinet will embrace. But there are strong reasons to hope they might. Mr. Trump was elected largely by workers. He is, uniquely, a president not beholden to union orthodoxies or industrial dogmas.

“I’ve always referred to the Department of Labor as the Department of Opportunity,” said Thomas E. Perez, who served as secretary of labor under Mr. Obama and is now running to head the Democratic National Committee.

In the most recent election, workers showed how powerfully they can upend political prognostications when they want to — and how much they are willing to cross party lines to get what they want.

“I’m not at all convinced Trump actually cares about workers,” Mr. Perez said. “But I’m willing to be surprised.”

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